CRAWFORD | How can Louisville stop Michigan's threes? Asking the - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | How can Louisville stop Michigan's threes? Asking the Cardinals

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Louisville's Anas Mahmoud closes out on a three-pointer against Pittsburgh. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Louisville's Anas Mahmoud closes out on a three-pointer against Pittsburgh. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Three little words. That could be all that stands between the University of Louisville basketball team and a trip to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City.

Those words? Stop the three.

Simple. Clear. Direct. No fancy equation needed. Except when you face a John Beilein Michigan team. Then it’s more difficult to solve than Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows all about this, and about Beilein. The two coached against each other in the Big East, and again in the 2013 NCAA title game. This year, however, he doesn’t have his 2013 team.

(Asked to compare the two on Saturday, he said, “Like I said at Boston: Gorgui Deing isn’t walking through that door, and Peyton Siva and Russ Smith aren’t either.)

He has a Louisville team that has struggled late in the season to stop the three. There was Virginia Tech’s 17-for-26 three-point barrage on Louisville’s home court (a 94-90 Cardinal victory). There was Wake Forest going 10-for-24 from beyond the arc to beat the Cardinals. On Friday night, Jacksonville State went 10-for-19 from three in Louisville’s first-round victory in the NCAA Tournament.

Over their last eight games, the Cardinals have given up 9.25 three-pointers per game. That’s like pouring gasoline on a Michigan team that’s already on fire. The Wolverines made 16 of 29 threes in a one-point win over Oklahoma State to open the tournament, and 10 of 23 against Wisconsin to win the Big Ten Tournament title. Over its past eight games, Michigan is averaging 10.25 threes per game, is taking 25 threes per game and them at a 41 percent clip.

Pitino, on Friday, called them the “Golden State Warriors.” That, Beilein said Saturday, “is a huge exaggeration.” This isn’t: Job No. 1 -- among many -- for Louisville in Sunday’s 12:10 p.m. matchup will be containing Michigan’s three-point attack. That Wisconsin team that just knocked top-seeded Villanova out of the tournament? It had just lost to Michigan in the championship of the Big Ten Tournament -- by 15.

Many times late in the season, Louisville players have thought they were up close enough to three-point shooters, only to have them rise up and make threes anyway.

I asked Pitino what constitutes a good challenge. He gave me a great answer -- but not to that question. My translation: I’m not telling you, or Michigan, anything about how we teach three-point defense.

He did say that players often think that shooters are out of their range. And said that shooters today have unlimited range in the half-court.

The players, however, were a bit more detailed in their analysis.

David Levitch knows the game. He’s a frequent target of Pitino’s criticism for defensive issues -- but not because he doesn’t know the defense.

“You just have to run them off the line,” he said of Michigan. “You just have to jam their shooting hand, force them to their off hand, if they’re a righty force them left, and don’t put your feet below the (three-point line). Even if he’s 10 feet behind the line and you’re below the line, then he can make it, because they’re good shooters.”

Deng Adel smiled covered his face when I asked him about stopping the three.

“Don’t ask me that,” he said, smiling. “I did it twice yesterday.”

The toughest thing for him, Adel said, is judging what’s close enough to challenge the three, without being so close that he’s susceptible to the dribble drive.

“It’s tough to play, because you get that close, they’re going to blow by you,” Adel said. “So when that happened to me yesterday, that’s what I was thinking, I didn’t want to get blown by, or possibly pick up a foul or have one of our bigs get into foul trouble. But I understand what coach is saying. You’ve just got to get out there and pressure and run them off the line, especially late in the shot clock. Not a lot of people look to drive late in the clock. It’s a learning process. And we needed that, what happened yesterday, with how well Michigan shoots it from the three-point line.”

The best way to defend Michigan's threes, center Anas Mahmoud said, might be preventing the Wolverines from taking them at all. That'll be difficult. They've taken more threes (52) than twos (51) over their past two games.

"Watching film yesterday, we realize that we have to limit their attempts, not just contest them," Mahmoud said. "We have to try to make them do something other than shoot the three."                                                                                         

The problem, Pitino said, is that Michigan does so many other things well. The Wolverines improved defensively. They have a big-time point guard in Derrick Walton Jr.

And when the three hasn’t been working for them, they’ve been able to win in other ways.

“With one-day prep,” Pitino said, “this is about as difficult a task as I’ve faced since I’ve been a coach, because of the way they play. There’s nobody similar (to Michigan) this year, and we had the No. 1 schedule in the nation. . . . You have to beat them, because if you put them to the line, they’re going to make their free throws. If you give them open looks they’re going to make their threes. If you overplay them, they’re going to go back door. So they’re truly unique. And with one-day prep, it’s very difficult. And they only give you an hour and a half of practice, too.”

Simple job. Difficult to accomplish. Pitino even has seen them in person, when Minnesota, coached by his son, Richard, beat them. Richard Pitino is on his way to Indianapolis to watch the Cardinals on Sunday.

“We have a scheme that we think will be successful,” Rick Pitino said, “but you just don't know because of their shooting ability. . . . Since the time I've seen them, they've gotten a lot more confident and a lot better.”

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